Reflections on the post-digital

by craigepplin

The historical distinction between the digital and the non-digital becomes increasingly blurred, to the extent that to talk about the digital presupposes a disjuncture in our experience that makes less and less sense.

I agree with this observation, which I pulled from the opening paragraph of an essay that David Berry posted last week. If he’s right that the triumph of the digital means also the end of its specificity, then it’s time to retire, among others, now-familiar adjectives like “online” and “offline.” We–our bodies and their displacements–are integrated into wireless, digital networks to such a degree that it makes increasingly less sense to specify discrete times of being online or off. Hence Berry’s advocacy for the term “post-digital” as an apt modifier for our current moment.

The subsumption of the world by digital technologies has important consequences for the ways we think about not just humanity, but also about the humanities. Already in the early nineties, scholars like Geoffrey Nunberg foresaw the end of individual texts, whose boundaries would be blurred by their fluidity and explicit, quite literal links to the great textual beyond. Though the scenario described by this prediction has only partly come to pass, we have already seen other outgrowths of digital textuality, only one of which is the sort of data-rich analysis championed by Franco Moretti and others.

Berry’s proposal for the post-digital humanities gets away from the distinction between the digital and the analogue; he wants us to study, rather, the different modulations of cultural production today, which is already inscribed into digital media. I like the way he puts it here:

The post-digital humanities would then be attentive to our massively computational world and culture, but nonetheless attend to the ways in which culture is materialised and fixed in forms specific to digital material culture. That is, how culture is inscribed not just in moments of culture created by human actors, but also in the technical devices, recording systems, trackers, web bugs and beacons of the digital age, together with the giant databases they fill with narratives and documentaries about the great and the mundane, the event and the everyday. Attentive, that is, to the way in which human culture writ large, is also written digitally, in an open-ended arrangement of diverse practices and parts.

What his post makes me wonder is whether the term “post-digital,” as well as the sort of interpretation it implies, is equally applicable to other realms. Do we occupy a “post-digital” economy? Certainly we do, if we adopt Berry’s terms, but do we live equally in a “post-capitalist” world, in as much as capitalism too has touched all regions of the globe? That I would find less convincing.

And I think that’s the case because of the way I understand the verb “touch” in the sentence above. Capitalism, by now, touches social life the world over, but it doesn’t encapsulate every lived experience. There is, at the heart of coexistence, a “communism of the senses” (to steal a term from David Graeber) that makes it possible for species survival. That survival is not guaranteed, of course, and the further penetration of capitalism into our lives acts against it–with global warming as the most obvious case.

Might we say something similar about the digital? That while our experiences are increasingly suffused with its technologies and while our sensibilities are increasingly inflected by them, we maintain, for the moment, regions of the non-digital. Digital technologies are hegemonic, but let’s not forget that, as Jon Beasley-Murray has shown, hegemony doesn’t exist and has never really existed. Totalization might be its horizon, but we don’t know if it will ever actually reach it.